[Image] Home | Author  
 

Autumn Notes on a Winter Reading from Last Year

In this one-off attempt, Jeffery Deaver presents another time, another place for his reinvented 007


By Ian Dunross
December 23, 2013

In what follows are rough notes on Deaver’s novel. I started to compile them in a journal about a year ago, thinking I could use them some day for a formal book review. These are nothing more than quick sketches and recollections of the novel, jotted during some travels, beginning in Christmas 2012 and resuming this fall or, to borrow from Poe, in this period of dull, dark, and soundless days in the autumn of the year. The sketches, in context to my travel notes, have an immediacy that are best left "as is". What I’ve written at the time also reminds me that Deaver’s novel, though a noble effort, remains an oddity in the series.

[image]

Asheville, NC 12/21/12 — The blustery wind is strong enough to rattle the chandelier and the massive windows. I’m two days into my Christmas holiday, and I’m passing time with my six-year old niece in the so-called Library Lounge of the hotel on the Biltmore Estate, waiting for the 8:30 PM candlelight tour of the mansion. We’re surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows that offer views of the valley and, in the distance, the Blue Ridge Mountains, darkening with fog in the winter dusk. Scattered on our table are a batch of crayons, a Tangled coloring book, and (for her uncle’s vices) an exquisite bottle of Goldeneye pinot noir and a copy of Carte Blanche, Jeffery Deaver’s entry in the 007 literary canon. The waiter had mentioned that Deaver has held speaking engagements in the area1 for his other books and that the Biltmore had been used in a number of films, including Hannibal. The mansion is about five miles from the hotel and, as I look out the window, it appears like a mirage in the twilight as birds circle its Gothic spires. It’s a suitable lair for a Bond villain: modeled after a 16th-century French château in the Loire Valley, the mansion is majestic, forbidding—and, most importantly, secluded. Severan Hydt, in Carte Blanche, would have been inspired to concoct a more epic caper than his bizarre waste recycling scheme had he lived in something similar to what George Vanderbilt created in 1895.

“Are you still reading zero, zero, 7?” my little niece asks. She had noticed the book cover earlier in the day and was intrigued by the giant 007 logo dwarfing the actual title. “Do you like it?” I sit back in my chair. Her words, along with the thunderous blare of the wind, snap me out of my reverie, and I realize that I’m not quite sure how to answer the question.

The flight to North Carolina from beautiful bankrupt California is just enough time to read Carte Blanche cover to cover. It has the expected elements: suspenseful moments, gory deaths, a baroque villain, some amusing technology, harrowing escapes, and a Bond girl with the obligatory risqué name (Felicity Willing—and, of course, the puns are unavoidable). The title gains significance in its reference to our man Bond typically having “carte blanche” to battle his enemies, but in this mission his privileges are limited by bureaucracy, forcing him to mock (a few times, in fact) that he’s left with carte grise instead. The whole notion is weak; but at least the plot’s time frame is somewhat refreshing, spanning only a week, yet unfolding into the globe-trotting canvas of a 007 adventure, starting in Serbia, concluding in Sudan, but jammed in the middle are stops in Dubai, South Africa, and, of course, the UK. Deaver, an esteemed mystery writer, was plucked from some sort of master list of authors, so the PR machines proclaim, to take the hallowed mission of continuing the Bond series in homage to the glorious Ian Fleming, though what it all really means is that the franchise needed another book while the “continuation” product line remains viable. In Carte Blanche, the 007 lore is rebooted (ah, how trendy!) to circa 2011 with a youthful Bond and the inevitable refashioning of the character. In other words, it’s a farewell to Fleming as Deaver forces the characterization to accord with contemporary scenarios. We can anticipate the drill—Bond is suddenly in his early thirties and not only an ex-Royal Naval Reserve officer but a veteran of the Afghan war (of course!) who happens to be a non-smoker (of course!), a modern sensitive chap (of course!), and a member of whatever government agency that currently handles espionage affairs—hence, the Overseas Development Group, a covert unit within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Or this division, for all I know, could be nothing more than a group of community organizers in Chicago or Oakland or Philadelphia. Either interpretation doesn’t matter, especially when there are annoying elements to confront, such as Bond’s adherence to political correctness: this 007 takes great pains to call someone up for using the word “coloured” and even convinces himself, during an awkward romantic interlude, not to bed his colleague Ophelia Maidenstone because she is recovering from a botched wedding engagement. We enter his thoughts, a stream-of-consciousness narrative equally bizarre, quite prissy to say the least (though, ironically, very suitable for Daniel Craig’s gay-friendly Bond): “And yet he knew, too, that it wasn’t right,” this 007 grieves. “Not now. When she’d slipped the ring off and handed it back, she’d also returned a piece of her heart” (126). It’s almost as if he wants to weep in this scene. The girl, Ophelia (or Philly, as she’s called) should have ordered him a carafe of vodka to reactivate some of the hardened, brooding hero from the Fleming pages; but before she can object to his prissiness, the new 007 takes the liberty of ordering an unoaked Napa chardonnay. One must concede this much to Deaver: his 007 tends to be more of a wine aficionado than the chap in the Fleming books. So be it. As a wine geek, I can relate to this character trait. But what are we to do with a 007 who seems to have reached his limit for the night with a chardonnay? Somehow that doesn’t quite ring true to Fleming’s hero. That 007 would have supplemented the measly glass of bourbon that Deaver has him drinking in his London flat by downing a bottle of calvados before heading off to the restaurant, where I imagine him consuming not the effete orange-flavored cocktail he stipulates from the waiter but an entire bottle of Bordeux before Philly arrives, to which he would then summon the waiter for a bottle of Taittinger to compliment their dinner. Though I enjoy chardonnay—oaked or unoaked—just as much as the next enophile, I’d say it’s too light of a wine for the character, as crafted by Fleming. Fortunately, Deaver’s Bond does hark back to some of the cool 007 connoisseurship near the end of the evening when he decides to sample the restaurant’s collection of Armagnac.

*   *   *

Washington, DC 10/03/13 — I am looking down at Pennsylvania Avenue from the observation tower of the old post office pavilion. I’m 270 feet above the street, and I notice the Capitol dome and suddenly remember Deaver’s novel and its meditation on the role of government.

One of the perplexing things in Carte Blanche is the acronyms that Deaver supplies, which disrupts the flow of the narrative by forcing us to recall the meaning of each. But in Deaver’s approach, it’s all part of the realism that he is attempting to strike: as he states in his Author’s Note, “The world of intelligence, counterintelligence, and espionage is one of acronyms and shorthand. Since the alphabet soup of security agencies can be a bit daunting, I thought a glossary might prove helpful. It appears at the end of the book.” The glossary spans five pages. I now know that FCO refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which is the “main diplomatic and foreign policy agency of the United Kingdom, headed by the foreign secretary, who is a senior member of the cabinet” (514). My enlightenment deepens with the understanding that SBS stands for Special Boat Service, a special forces unit of the Royal Navy “formed during the Second World War” (516). And, should I ever find myself in Cape Town, it would be heartening to know that the NIA (National Intelligence Agency) exists as the “domestic security agency of South Africa” (515), while the Crime Combating and Investigation Division of SAPS (South African Police Service) “specializes primarily in serious crimes, such as murder, rape, and terrorism” (514). I wonder, in any of these countries, who or what spearheads the Diversity Coordination Unit of Cultural Tolerance and Enforcement of Political Correctness?

Anyway, the glossary suggests that in the world of spydom, acronyms are the norm to keep track of the bureaucratic intricacies of government agencies. And, intentional or not, the novel exposes the decadence of big government. This is underscored by the ominous imagery of government buildings. Take, for example, Thames House—the MI5 bastion—which has as a rather bleak facade:

But if not as architecturally striking [as the MI6 building], Thames House is far more intimidating. The ninety-year-old gray stone monolith is the sort of place where, were it a police headquarters in Soviet Russia or East Germany, you would begin answering before questions were asked. (134)

This evokes a police state, where an obscure entity of power engulfs the individual. The entity is a network of organizations, institutions, departmental clans, weaved by the mishmash of internal politics:

In the windowless bowels of Thames House were the offices of Division Three. The organization conscientiously—for the sake of deniability—rented space and equipment from Five (and nobody has better equipment than MI5), all at arm’s length. (134)

A sense of decrepitude seeps from within this entity, ushered by the weight of bureaucratic deadness:

In the middle of this fiefdom was a large control room, rather frayed at the edges, the green walls battered and scuffed, the furniture dented, the carpet insulted by too many heels. The requisite government regulatory posters about suspicious parcels, fire drills, health and trade union matters were omnipresent, often tarted up by bureaucrats with nothing better to do. (134-135)

Now consider some of these bureaucrats: as depicted in the hacks who hamper Bond’s efforts, the novel reminds us of the expansion of blundering security services and, by extension, the tendency of government to be a panoptic State. Early in the novel, because Bond lacks authorization to act on British soil (that’s right: this British agent lacks the authorization to do his job in his country), he is forced to work with a domestic security agent, Percy Osborne-Smith, a staunch bureaucrat or, in clinical terms, a profound a-hole. The two men clash over the interpretation of the intelligence, leading Bond to trick Osborne-Smith into pursuing a false lead so he can be free to investigate the army base near March, Cambridgeshire.

In South Africa, Bond clashes with Bheka Jordaan, the chilly superior of Cape Town counterintelligence who refuses to assist him unless he can give her a legal reason to intervene. Once again, another bureaucrat who can't break the protocol. It's an intriguing angle to the novel, this notion of the inefficiencies of government. It’s also rather a subtle nod to Fleming’s penchant for pulling a 007 adventure past the confines of pure fantasy. But I must say that I have received comments from statist-leaning fans, decrying the novel’s portrayal of government institutions. Nothing to see here, I gather from their outlook. Ah, of course! In America alone, none of this bureaucratic ineptitude exists. I ought to point out, though, that we do have this minor problem of the NSA accidentally eavesdropping on the phone lines of civilians, the most understandable blunder reported by The Washington Post, in early August or so, concerning a trivial incident about “a large number of calls” from Washington that were intercepted when “a programming error confused the U.S. area code 202 for 20, the international dialing code for Egypt” (Gellman). It's certainly nothing to worry about, and the incident even has a remarkable aesthetic aspect, reminding us of the classic moment in any mindless action film wherein some chap is on the run and manages to find a telephone in a rundown gas station in the desert—a telephone, mind you, that remains operable and just happens to be wiretapped by inscrutable dark-suited figures in Langley. And just ten seconds into his conversation with his contact, our hero notices the monstrous government helicopters already looming over the gas station. Personally, it’s comforting to know that, if I ever get ambushed at an abandoned gas station by government forces, it's all because of the innocent mistake of a yawning paper-pusher who mistyped Kazakhstan’s dialing code 7 with that of North Carolina, which is 704. Nevertheless, it is through this innate absurdity of bureaucrats that Carte Blanche implies the mechanisms of bloated, blundering statism.

Political correctness and the farrago of bureaucratic nonsense: Deaver’s novel adheres to the first, to an adamant degree, but it’s subtly angled toward exploring the second. The result is an odd mix, never amounting to a great Bond novel, though serviceable at times, but overly plotted, and self-destructive in its misinterpretation of Fleming’s character and in its self-consciousness to be politically correct.

*   *   *

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, NY 11/16/13 — The kerosene lanterns flare in the falling dusk as my tour group moves on from Washington Irving’s grave in this campy lamplight tour of the famed cemetery. I find myself staring a little longer at the American writer’s grave and sort of feeling astonished that I’m in the landscape of the classic “Sleepy Hollow” tale that we’ve all read in childhood. The Old Dutch Church and its graveyard—the reputed haunting ground of the headless horseman—is nearby, a National Historical Landmark that features old, old tombstones of those who likely inspired the tale’s characters, Katrina Van Tassel, Ichabod Crane, Brom Bones, and others. The bridge where Crane is chased by the headless horseman is long gone; but the the cemetery’s own bridge, spanning over the Pocantico River, is rustic enough to emulate the one in the tale.

The sound of the tour guide’s voice begins to recede as the group wanders down the pathway in the fading light. It’s chilly, and wind scatters brown leaves on the ground. I slowly walk away from Irving’s grave to catch up with the group. The tour, I’m told, includes an introduction to the cemetery art, architecture, and symbols on the grounds, along with accounts of Revolutionary War monuments and a quaint visit to the 113-year-old underground receiving vault. Top it all off with happy picture-taking moments at the graves of the famous: Andrew Carnegie, Walter Chrysler, Elizabeth Arden, Leona Helmsley, Brooke Astor, William Rockefeller, to name a few. They’re all here, in the shadow of the headless horseman—it’s quite the enterprise, a Disneyesque family theme park oriented on death and decay; and for a fleeting moment, I entertain the thought that it’s the work of Severan Hydt. In the realm of 007 continuation novels, this chap—with his fixation on the nature of disintegration and death—is probably the best villain. Just what would have Washington Irving thought of this character, I chuckle as I walk past the 3-acre burying ground of the Old Dutch Church. As for Irving’s tale, it would not be out of place on Hydt’s book shelf: I imagine the waste disposal magnate unwinding in his study on a rainy evening, puffing on a pipe and delving into a fire-side reading of a dark figure on horseback chopping off the heads of the local residents of a Dutch settlement in 1790.

Surprisingly, in the Deaver novel, the villains are more interesting than Bond; and, in particular, it is Deaver’s sketch of Severan Hydt that gives the novel much of its buzz. The author doesn’t hold back on sticking to the tradition of the Bond villain. All the elements are in place for Hydt-as-Bond-villain: sinister, autonomous in his wealth, he craves power and has a dimension of the grotesque. His ominous figure is almost kitschy enough to make us laugh, but Deaver’s striking description enables us to take the character a tad serious:

He was a tall man—six foot three—and broad-shouldered, his columnar torso encased on a bespoke suit of black wool. His massive head was covered with dense, curly hair, black streaked with white, and he wore a matching beard. His yellowing fingernails extended well past his fingertips but were carefully filed; they were long by design, not neglect. (55)

Add to this portrait a cheery, warm mug, quite suitable for the cover of People magazine: the villain’s “pallor accentuated his dark nostrils and darker eyes, framed by a long face that appeared younger than his fifty-six years” (56). Hydt, on the surface, is a poetic figure of death; but the characterization turns out to be a convenient plot device, allowing Deaver to skim the muddled story, which has something to do with recycling bodies from mass graves into consumer-friendly construction materials and a super duper weapon that shoots shards of titanium at hypervelocity. With Hydt, Deaver is able to bypass the reason for the Bond villain’s will to chaos: Hydt is the embodiment of death and chaos. No further explanations are needed for why he is a villain and why he needs to wreck havoc on the world. It’s his very nature to produce chaos and destruction. Then again, one is bound to seek chaos when one is obsessed and fascinated with all things decay. Fortunately, Hydt found the ideal job as CEO of Green Way International Disposal and Recycling. And, fortunately, he’s found the ideal woman: Jessica Barnes, a pale, white-haired sixty-something former beauty queen who arouses Hydt, especially when he remembers her after blowing up a hospital, a truly pensive romantic moment when he is “mesmerized by the pile of debris, so very different from the elegant if faded structure it had been a few moments ago ”(98). His speech on entropy and why he is the way he is reminds us of Dr. No’s self-glorifying soliloquy:

“Whatever is old or discarded gives me comfort. I couldn’t tell you why. Nor do I care to know. I think . . . most people waste far too much time wondering why they are as they are. Accept your nature and satisfy it. I love decay, decline . . . the things others shun.” (141)

His remark reinforces an earlier bit of imagery, probably the most disturbing but potent in the entire novel, wherein Hydt scrutinizes with fascination a corpse that his workers have uncovered in a bin liner:

He eased closer to the body, knees pressing against what was left of the woman’s jeans. The smell of decay—like bitter, wet cardboard—would be unpleasant to most people but discard had been Hydt’s life-long profession . . . With one of his jaundiced fingernails, Hydt reached forward and stroked the top of the skull, from which most of the hair was missing, then the jaw, the finger bones, the first to be exposed. . . . He studied his new friend for a long moment, then reluctantly eased back. He looked at his watch. He pulled his iPhone from his pocket and took a dozen pictures of the corpse. (59-60)

Suddenly, we have entered the realm of the macabre. Deaver is at full force here as a thriller writer. Aside from evoking suspense, Deaver brings the imagery back to an element in Gothic fiction: namely, the act of deriving pleasure from objects of terror. I find myself turning back to this scene a few times until I realize it sort of resembles Fuseli’s renowned painting The Nightmare. First exhibited in 1782, it depicts a sleeping woman in a relaxed, almost lifeless pose, suggesting she may be dead. On her torso sits an incubus—a hideous gargoyle-like figure—that stares at the viewer with an annoyed expression, as if interrupted from some ritual. In Carte Blanche, Hydt is a demonic incubus, and his penchant for dead bodies (even photographing them to get off on them privately) is a throwback to the Gothic element of celebrating terror.

The prelude to his exposition on entropy concerns his favorite topic—himself, of course—and this takes us to a summary of his childhood and consequent rise to power. His take on the notion of discard is intriguing:

“To me discard is more than a business,” Hydt said. “It’s a window onto our society . . . and into our souls.” He sat forward. “You see, we may acquire something in life unintentionally—through a gift, neglect, inheritance, fate, error, greed, laziness—but when we discard something, it’s almost always with cold intent.” (343)

In other words, when we acquire, we usually gather without intention, without thought, drifting in a sense of unconsciousness—we are unconscious of ourselves. But we’re truly alive in the act of discard, conscious of ourselves in our intentions to dispose or cast aside something. Discard is a state of being; acquire is non-being. The speech is delivered in his office, over a glass of wine2 with Bond (who’s undercover as a South African mercenary). The room’s decor—old photographs, paintings, battered antiques—inspires the villain to expound on his affirmation of entropy:

“Entropy,” said Hydt, clicking his long, yellow nails, “is the essential truth of nature. It’s the tendency toward decay and disorder—in physics, in society, in art, in living creatures . . . in everything. It’s the path to anarchy.” He smiled. “That sounds pessimistic but it isn’t. It’s the most wonderful thing in the world. You can never go wrong by embracing the truth. And truth it is.” (343)

As part of delving into truth, he changed his name, so we learn from his anecdote, to complete his self-recognition as the affirmer of entropy. The wise course is to hark back to the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, the founder of the Severan emperors who reigned during the senescence of the empire. Hence, the significance of his first name. As for his surname, Hydt, it is an allusion to the dark side of the hero in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. “I believe we all have a public side and a dark side,” he tells Bond. It’s jolly good of him to be a literary chap. He’d be a welcome guest at those awkward Thanksgiving get-togethers, captivating everyone at the dinner table with his muttering allusions to the doppelgänger effect in Victorian literature. Yet with every passing line in his anecdote, old Severan also convinces me that someone has got to keep the snuff box away from him. He’s well over fifty, and—we must admit—that’s quite old to be floating on Indonesian pipe dreams and hallucinating wistful bygone empires.3 Nevertheless, despite his submission to the enigma of the self (let’s not forget his maxim, “Accept your nature and satisfy it”), the key to his mentality—his propensity for chaos—lies in an almost mysterious passage early in the novel, when Hydt savors the sight of the demolished hospital, convinced that he’s the vehicle of disintegration:

He noted that the explosive had been skillfully set. He reminded himself to thank the crew. Rigging charges is a true art. The trick is not to blow up the building but simply to eliminate what keeps it upright, allowing nature—gravity, in this case—to do the job.

Which was, Hydt now reflected, a metaphor for his own role on earth. (99)

He sees the mechanism of dissolution: nature can be steered to remove the supporting elements of order. To Hydt, it’s the elegant rhythm of existence in which he is that impulse for disorder. As the incarnate of entropy, he stands over the world in his power to unravel and destroy. In the end, what he seeks is nothing more than the struggle to overcome his own twilight—his finitude in a vast, impersonal universe where one is a drop in the ocean. Hydt, like all megalomaniacs, has a profound sensitivity to his finity. The will to power, the struggle to overcome this insignificance—once again, in the true stance of a Bond villain, Hydt is compelled to overcome himself and the world, placing himself atop everything. The characterization reaches its peak in this scene of the “Villain’s Speech” but then Deaver resorts to a series of plot twists, propelling the narrative too rapidly, leading to a weak ending for Hydt. It’s one thing if Bond and Hydt had an intense encounter in the finale such as the fight scene on the train that Fleming staged for Bond and Grant in From Russia, With Love; but as it is, Hydt’s demise is too abrupt and undramatic.

In the denouement, Felicity Willing and Niall Dunne take the center stage as villains. There’s not much to Felicity Willing, apart from the cliché twist that the Bond girl turns out to be a villain. Dunne, on the other hand, is the closest thing to a Bondian henchman, although quite an accomplished assassin and all around terrorist in his own right. Whereas Hydt has a fetish for entropy, Dunne is fixated on efficiency—that is, methodical, systematic actions and results. He strives to operate at the level of machine-like precision, approaching the world from the perspective of streamlined productivity. There is no room for disorder, chaos, in his sphere, which is in complete contrast to his employer, Hydt, who as we’ve seen, celebrates disorder. Hence, Dunne’s admiration for machines and the realm of constancy, exactitude, regularity. Deaver sets up the characterization early in the novel, during a lengthy action scene (which spans a few chapters), when the Irishman regrets that a train will be blown up. He is crouching in thick weeds, watching the approaching train and feels a sense of waste in what’s about to happen: “For one thing, death was usually a waste and Dunne was, first and foremost, a man who disliked waste—it was almost sinful. Diesel engines, hydraulic pumps, drawbridges, electric motors, computers, assembly lines … all machines were meant to perform their tasks with as little waste as possible.” Death, on the other hand, “was efficiency squandered” (17).

Suffice it to say that the entire operation is thwarted by Bond’s intervention. Dunne, though, has no regrets, especially when his beloved runaway train is saved from destruction: “As he approached the diesel he couldn’t help but admire the massive machine” (23). To celebrate, he shoots the train driver (who’s struggling for help) twice in the head. Apparently, the driver can be discarded, but not the train: “It was such a relief that he hadn’t been forced to cause the death of this wonderful machine, as he’d been dreading. He ran his hand along the side of the locomotive, as a father would stroke the hair of a sick child whose fever had just broken.” The train, he believes, “would be back in service in a few months’ time” (23).

So what is Deaver trying to accomplish with Dunne’s characterization? Well, he seems to be exploring the uncertainty of one’s humanity. Dunne, for all his impulses for machine-like precision and consistency, is grounded in the unpredictability of his own self. As part of his backstory, he’s had a romantic fling with Felicity Willing, something that just happened at the time, certainly unplanned on his part, and the reason, surprisingly, is nowhere to be found in Pascal’s principles of hydraulic fluids. Nevertheless, he and Felicity Willing eventually call off the romance, an amiable decision, as the saying goes, with both easily agreeing that he can take the collection of diesel locomotive operation manuals. They remain business partners but she becomes a tyrant, manipulative in her own right, explaining that their relationship is grounded in a higher state of being and that a mere love affair “would ruin their astonishing intellectual—no, spiritual—connection. Besides, she’d been hurt before, very badly” and that, in matters of romance, she is nothing more than “a bird with a broken wing that hadn’t yet mended” (491-492). He, in turn, falls for this bullshit, readily becomes her side kick in dark ventures, though still quietly in love with her, convinced in his own delusions that she would come around, but all the while he keeps his “obsession for her buried, as hidden and as explosive as a VS-50 land mine” (492). In other words, he is unable to maintain an emotionless machine-like self. To make his humanity even more unfathomable, it turns out that Dunne’s also got homoerotic tendencies for Severan Hydt. How is one to take in this blizzard of traits for a minor character? It’s overkill on Deaver’s part, but from what we gather steadily in this novel is his keen interest in presenting bizarre characters. This, we can say, has something of an homage to the old master: Fleming himself never strayed from painting his characters with oddities, to say the least, even giving Honeychile Rider, in Doctor No, a boy’s rear end—a description that prompted Noel Coward (Fleming’s neighbor in Jamaica) to write in joking outrage: “I know that we are all becoming progressively more broad-minded nowadays but really, old chap, what could you have been thinking of?” Anyway, in Deaver’s case, he seems to be underscoring that the self, driven by irrational impulses, points to its own uncertainty. Mercifully, he has the self-control not to make Dunne swoon at the sight of Bond (and any of that scenario would’ve been the final straw for Coward). As it is, in the scene just before the big fund-raising gala at the Lodge Club, Dunne watches Hydt from a window at the Green Way headquarters, almost in tears from the pain of unrequited love:

His eyes lingered on Hydt as he vanished down the street, accompanied by one of his Green Way guards.

Watching him leave, en route to his home and his companion [Jessica Barnes], Dunne felt a pang. . . . Dunne supposed people wondered why he was alone, why he didn’t have a partner. They assumed the answer was that he lacked the ability to feel. That he was a machine. They didn’t understand that, according to the concept of classical mechanics, there were simple machines—like screws and levers and pulleys—and complex machines, like engines, which by definition transferred energy into motion. . . . No, the explanation of his solitude was simply that the object of his desire didn’t, in turn, desire him. (275-276)

The imagery of man and machine is at play here. But Dunne, despite all his efforts to operate like a precision machine, cannot escape his human dimension.

*   *   *

Toronto, the Old City Hall, 11/18/13 — With its ornate castle-like facade, accented by grim statues of gargoyles, the Old City Hall is a dramatic contrast to the sleek modern essence of the rest of the city. A historic landmark, the site has been used in Hollywood productions such as Chicago and The Pentagon Papers. It was also used on the album cover of Rush’s Moving Picture. I’m standing at the war memorial at the Queen Street entrance and recall that, in my childhood, I often climbed onto the platform of the cenotaph and, on one occasion, stared in awe at the Mountie on horseback as my father lifted me onto the saddle for a photo. To a five-year-old lad, it was enough to sense the armorial grandeur of the site and to imagine there was somehow an empire like the one I saw in Lawrence Of Arabia, which featured cool soldiers fighting evil armies in other lands. That empire was also in my kindergarten class: the Union Jack, along with the Canadian flag, hung above the chalkboard; our national anthem played each morning, followed by “God Save The Queen”—in those spade and bucket days, grounded in a Britannic flair, my classmates and I pretended to be T.E. Lawrence or James Bond, battling anonymous enemies with snowballs, unaware that the empire we defended no longer existed. Now, as I look at the war memorial, I’m reminded of how, in the transitory nature of things, a glorious empire can have its dissolution and, disappearing once and for all, becomes the sublime horror of being a pale shadow, its glory signifying nothing. Mark Steyn has an apt description, in terms of socio-economic conditions, of the fall of the empire that I exalted in childhood:

In my book America Alone, I point out that, to a five-year-old boy waving his flag as Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee procession marched down the Mall in 1897, it would have been inconceivable that by the time of his 80th birthday the greatest empire the world had ever known would have shriveled to an economically moribund strike-bound socialist slough of despond, one in which (stop me if this sounds familiar) the government ran the hospitals, the automobile industry, and much of the housing stock, and, partly as a consequence thereof, had permanent high unemployment and confiscatory tax rates that drove its best talents to seek refuge abroad.

With its own entropy at work, any empire—big, bloated, statism—eventually implodes. I look at the Old City Hall: presently, it’s used as a courthouse, and the Council Chamber and municipal offices are now located across the street at the New City Hall. I imagine anonymous figures in corridors and offices and suddenly recall a scene in Deaver’s Carte Blanche: Bond’s briefing from M, but here the old admiral is frustrated with his division’s powerlessness on its own soil, thanks to the inner workings of government agencies:

He shook his head. “I don’t see why Whitehall didn’t give us more latitude about operating at home when they chartered us. Would have been easy. . . . For God’s sake, these are the days of globalization, of the Internet, the EU, yet we can’t follow leads in our own country.” (52)

With such limitations, Bond is assigned to work with the aforementioned Percy Osborne-Smith, the paragon of bureaucratic idiocy. He is an agent in Division Three, apparently an off-shoot of MI5. Bond reflects on the layers of bureaucracy with ridicule:

Division Three . . . British security and police operations were like human beings: forever being born, marrying, producing progeny, dying and even, Bond had once joked, undergoing sex-change operations. Division Three was one of the more recent offspring. It had some loose affiliation with Five, in much the same way that the ODG had a gossamer-thin connection to Six. (53)

These agencies take a life of their own, spawning into a monolithic, authoritative structure. This structure exists because, well, it exists—and incomprehensible to the individual. At the end of this scene, M’s frustration with the system reaches its peak, when he reminds Bond about a time-consuming security conference:

“Haven’t you read the Whitehall briefing? M asked petulantly.

These were administrative announcements about internal government matters and, accordingly, no, Bond did not read them. “Sorry, sir.”

M’s jowls tightened. “We have thirteen security agencies in the UK. Maybe more as of this morning. The heads of Five, Six, SOCA, JTAC, SO Thirteen, DI, the whole lot—myself included—will be holed up in Whitehall for three days later in the week. Oh, the CIA and some chaps from the Continent too. . . . A bloody inconvenience, the whole thing.” (54)

The phrase “internal government matters” points again to structures of authority—authoritative political and regulatory structures. They converge into an obscure manifestation of power that limits, even engulfs, the individual. Let me put it another way: M’s frustration echoes the old existential angst of alienation, the feeling of powerlessness and insignificance that Sartre had scribbled in joyful, light fare such as Being and Nothingness. We move through the world with a sense of estrangement, a feeling of being estranged from our own institutions such as bureaucratized government. This bureaucracy exists as as a vast impersonal system, with a life of its own; and we neither feel that we’re part of it and nor can we fathom its workings. We’re trapped in alienation from our own institutions. The condition also raises the paradoxical nature of bureaucratized forces: these “internal government matters” are intended to enforce order but those who run these matters—the bureaucrats caught up in their own egos—bring down that order, creating inefficient institutions that lead to bureaucracy. Hydt would say this is entropy at work: a form of disorder, rotting these human institutions and casting aside the individual. M’s final line in this scene is haunting: after noting Bond’s limited authority in his country, he sternly reminds the agent that “You’re operating in the UK. Treat it like a country you’ve never been to. Which means, for God’s sake, be diplomatic with the natives” (54). Thus, Bond is a stranger in his own country. He’s adrift, belonging nowhere. This solitude is a variation of the lone figure who appears at the end of Moonraker, the agent “who was only a silhouette” (232), walking on an empty street in the falling night.

*   *   *

Asheville, the Biltmore House, 11/30/13. We reach the estate by mid-day and already it’s crowded as we make our way down the hallways, passing armorial statues and Victorian Christmas decorations. The smell of evergreen fills the grand house. Somewhere, in one of the other rooms, a choir is belting out a medley of Christmas songs, accompanied by a harpist. We reach the Banquet Hall where my niece, enchanted as ever, stares at the 35-foot Christmas tree. The tour guide mentions that decorating the estate involves months of planning and requires dozens of Fraser fir trees, miles of ribbon, a truckload delivery of red and white poinsettias, along with thousands of ornaments and sheer attention to detail. It’s about one year since my niece and I had been here but I carry the same impression: behind the attempt to replicate the Victorian Christmas tradition is a quiet sorrow, the sorrow of another time long gone. The mansion itself has gone through intense renovation to bring it to the condition it’s in today. Entropy had worked—and continues to work—on it. Vanderbilt, for all his attempts to sanctify himself, is gone, another finite figure that passed through the world like a meteor. Still, one can grasp the opulence that was available to him and continues to infuse life in the estate. Just as then, it’s a “carte blanche” approach to sustain the estate. I then recall that it was here where I began thinking about Deaver’s novel. I look out the window: the view of the snowcapped mountains, in tandem with the Christmas timeframe, reminds me of the 007 character in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Fleming’s only novel with a yuletide backdrop. The character, as exemplified in this novel, has the touch of existential mystique that no there continuation novelist has been able to emulate. For this 007, terror is draped behind a curtain that the world never attempts to pull back: as he skies down the Alps, escaping from arch-enemy Blofeld’s lair, he sees the dichotomy of illusion and reality underneath the joyful veneer of Christmas:

And then [Blofeld’s guards] chose to fire off three more flares followed by a stream of miscellaneous rockets that burst prettily among the stars. Of course! Bright idea! This was for the sake of watchers in the valley who might be inquisitive about the mysterious explosions high up the mountain. They were having a party up there, celebrating something. What fun these rich folk had, to be sure! And then Bond remembered. But of course! It was Christmas Eve! God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing ye dismay! (123).

The stream of consciousness has a strong humanistic flair; that the thoughts are coming from a man who’s seen a lot of danger grounded in the experience of life. In Deaver’s Carte Blanche, the stream of consciousness of his 007 depicts an analytic man, and his thoughts read like a textbook. In this mission, there’s quite a bit of running to be done, during which this James Bond takes pain to examine distances and angles, mulling the situation like a physics teacher with spy gadgets. He also has the habit of reciting the number of bullets remaining in his Walther, which already becomes annoying by the second time.

The intelligence of the novel is that Deaver writes in his own voice. It’s not exactly perfect for a Bond novel—his omniscient narrator lacks the authorial voice of a storyteller who carries something of a deeper knowledge of the world than ourselves—but at least there is no trite effort to parody Fleming. Refreshingly, he discards chapter titles, which I always thought was unnecessary in the Fleming books. Moreover, Deaver is well versed in the craft of the thriller and, for the most part, the narrative pacing is sharp, and he weaves plot twists that maintain consistent suspense. One sequence does stand out, awkwardly inserted into the narrative: Bond’s use of a private jet to Dubai. I suspect it’s a brazen attempt to toss in the glamour and opulence typically associated with the Bondian world; but in this case, Deaver is forced to include a backstory of how Bond is able to get on a private jet on such short notice (it all has to do with a wealthy Arab friend who owes him a favor) to make the situation plausible but the whole notion disrupts the main narrative. Fortunately, the entire 007 lore isn’t scrapped in this reboot: despite the mishandling of Bond’s character, Deaver maintains some semblance to the Fleming world by reusing other familiar characters such as M, Moneypenny, Bill Tanner, Mary Goodnight, and Q, although the latter is hampered by the cliché characterization of a high-tech wizard from the Indian subcontinent.

What else to say. The dramatic twists, the layers of plots—they surface as fleeting signals of what’s to come but go nowhere—overload the narrative, especially near the end where so much is offered to us. Just as a plot point is mentioned, Deaver lets it go. Either Deaver is suggesting that life is a muddle, so turbulent, so senseless in its entropy, or this narrative movement is the result of Deaver pouring it all out, building a crescendo in the finale for this one-off effort, knowing he would never write another 007 novel again. The final image of Bond as the alienated man, trapped in the whirlwind and realizing that any woman could never be part of his reality, holds promise but it’s too soft in tone as the endpoint to the abrupt onslaught of plots. The novel has since succeeded financially for the most part. For the debut week, it landed at number 5 on the New York Times Best Sellers list for hardcover fiction. But the reboot itself was an ambitious effort, considering that it’s a one-off. Carte Blanche is an entertaining enough read but its essence is rooted in the mystery—Deaver’s forté—rather than the spy thriller; and although there’s somehow an homage to Fleming, the novel is unremarkable and, ultimately, pointless.


[image]

Notes

1 Deaver is also a resident of Chapel Hill, about 200 miles east of Asheville.
2 Hydt pours himself a glass of South African Constantia. It’s unclear if Deaver is referring to any wine from the Constantia Valley, or to a wine from, say, the Groot Constantia Estate or the Klein Constantia Estate. Bond readily identifies, without mentioning the label, that Hydt is drinking a honey-sweet wine, apparently a revived version of Napoleon’s favorite, who sipped it on his deathbed, courtesy of the 5-star accommodations at the St. Helena prison. Based on Bond’s description, I suspect Hydt is drinking the Klein Constancia Vin de Constance 2006, a renowned Muscat, known for its syrupy and honey-almond flavors.
3 Hydt’s decadence implies that it’s not out of the question for him to delve into other vices. It wouldn’t surprise me if he vacuumed up Kilimanjaro-sized mounds of the finest white lady in his past time. South Africa has become a major junction in the drugs trade. For more information: http://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/2013/02/cocaine-south-africa-connection

Works Cited

Deaver, Jeffery. Carte Blanche. 2011. New York: Pocket Star Books, 2012. Print.
Fleming, Ian. Moonraker. 1955. New York: Berkley Books, 1984. Print.
—. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. 1963. New York: Signet, 22nd printing: n.d
Gellman, Barton. “NSA broke privacy rules thousands of times per year, audit finds.” The Washington Post.
August 15, 2013   Sept. 2, 2013 <http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-08-15/world
/41431831_1_washington-post-national-security-agency-documents>
Steyn, Mark. “Tattered Liberty.” National Review. March 23, 2010   Dec. 14, 2013
<http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/229381/tattered-liberty/mark-steyn>
Using any text or paraphrasing any of the ideas on this web site without proper citation is plagiarism. It is a serious misconduct that can range from failure in an academic course, even dismissal from school, and litigation. To avoid plagiarism, refer to the MLA citation styles described at The Owl At Purdue, the web site of the Writing Lab at Purdue University.